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Review: Tully – “Charlize Theron gives an emotionally honest and raw performance”

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Charlize Theron gives an emotionally honest and raw performance in the latest collaboration between Director Jason Reitman and Screenwriter Diablo Cody. The third in the pair’s (unofficial) ‘womanhood trilogy’Tully is less twee than Juno and not as cynical as Young Adult.  A decade on from Juno, this feels like a more grown-up film. But die-hard fans of the pair will still be rewarded by Diablo Cody’s razor-sharp wit pinging off the screen, and Reitman’s flair for the tragi-comic.

Tully presents the kind of three-dimensional portrait of motherhood, female identity and postpartum depression we rarely get to see on screen.

Days away from giving birth to her third child, Marlo (Charlize Theron) is weighed down physically and mentally. She shuffles up and down stairs, treads on lego and does the school run. But this is less of ‘how does she do it?’ comedic setup and more of a ‘how is this going to work this time?’ situation that is not played for laughs.

Marlo’s life is already chaotic. Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), her second child is having a hard time at school with non-specified behavioural/developmental issues (the lack of definite diagnoses is explored later on) and concerns about the postnatal depression that followed her last pregnancy are raised by family members.

The film quietly but very powerfully comments on the disparity of emotional labour between men and women. Marlo’s husband (Ron Livingstone)  Drew is not a bad guy, but he’s notably absent during Marlo’s most stressful moments. He cites the age-old ‘busy job’ reason for not doing more to help at home. At night he plays video games while Marlo collapses into sleep, dreaming of mermaids. This has become their pattern.

She is left to clear up the mess and emotional fall out inside and outside of their home. When Jonah’s school suggests Marlo should consider getting him specialist help, she’s fighting her corner alone “Do I have a kid or a f—king ukelele?” Marlo snaps as the Principal awkwardly calls Jonah quirky.

Drew calls his son quirky too,  during dinner with Marlo’s rich older brother Craig (Mark Duplass) and his spoiled wife Elyse (Elaine Tan) – “I remember the 9th month, I could hardly make it to the gym” she quips, irony-free as she holds a dog called Prosecco.

Later, in his new tiki bar, Craig offers to pay for a night nanny, someone to take the pressure off when the baby comes. Marlo dismisses the idea but takes the number anyway. Craig and Elyse are a little 2D as characters, but it doesn’t matter. We very much see life through Marlo’s eyes.

The birth scene is deliberately unceremonious; all the drama is building up to the aftermath. The family come back home, cue a montage of the daily routine of dealing with a newborn, the mess, the boredom the repetition. We see stained clothes and carpets, the relentless changing cycle, Marlo dropping her phone in the cot and sitting prisoner to the expressing machine clamped to her chest. Deciding enough is enough, Marlo tells Drew she’s calling the night nanny.

Enter the titular Tully, (San Junipero’s Mackenzie Davis), a Mumblecore Mary Poppins in dungarees. Davies is every bit as luminous as she was in Black Mirror. Tully is almost a mythical creature. “I’m here to help you,” she says as she breezes in and takes baby Mia in her arms. Tully is a  free-spirited, confident and disarming 26 year old. She cooks, she cleans, she sits in awe as Marlo nurses.

Employee-employer boundaries aren’t really addressed in this little world of two, where the women swap stories and Tully reels off strange facts and philosophies.

After a couple of nights, a shift in Marlo is visible. “It’s like I can see colour again,” she tells Drew. Everything looks and feels different when Tully is around. Daytime dullness shrinks into a bubble, occupied only by the two women and a baby and the scenes are shot in a more hyperreal way than the films overall naturalistic style.

It’s clear Marlo has spent so much time suffering alone; she can’t quite fathom having real help. Throughout the film, we get a picture of the woman she was before she got married. There are subtly woven hints at bi-sexual relationships, and past hurt. Her job is mentioned in passing, but her frustration isn’t necessarily at wanting another life. It’s about the loss of identity that can come with growing older and being a parent.

The film’s most powerful scenes are in smaller moments, the acts of kindness, brushes with the past, the way we’re conditioned to see women’s bodies. It’s a film that shows rather than tells, especially on the subject of body image. Eight-year-old Sarah  (Lia Frankland) shrieks “Mum, what happened to your body” while Marlo lets her postpartum belly rest on the table, not responding. In another scene, we see her triumphantly outrun an athletic-looking gym-gear clad woman in the park, only to fall over, leaking milk a moment later. It’s funny and sad. We laugh with Marlo, not at her.

A third act twist is stronger as a concept than in execution. However, it shows Diablo’s Cody is as deft at plotting as she is at plucking zingers from everyday conversation.

Reitman and Cody still have their observational bite; there’s just more empathy on display now.

Tully opens in cinemas on 4th May 2018.

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